23 March 2012

"Taoism: the Enduring Tradition," "Sophie's World," "A Grief Observed," "Five Moral Pieces," "1491," "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," and "The Hunger Games."

Taoism: the Enduring Tradition, Russell Kirkland
Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder
A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
Five Moral Pieces, Umberto Eco
1491, Charles C. Mann
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Taoism: the Enduring Tradition, Russell Kirkland

I wanted an explanation of Taoism that was comprehensible and accessible, like Alan Watts' explanation of Zen in The Way of Zen.  I did not find it here.  Instead, I found a scholarly parsing of terms, rigorous and stultifying self-arguments, and a book that was as dense as it was impressive.  In short, I found the problem with casual browsing in a university library.

I love my uni library.  I love it.  They have ordered no fewer than five books on my request, they are always helpful when I can't find a mis-shelved item (occurs at least once every few weeks), and last year they let me check out books over the ten-item limit (now I have a thirty-item limit!)  But it's a very different thing from a city library, where nearly every available book is intended for the general public.  The requirements of scholars can be much more exotic.  There are stacks of old German church tracts, bound between cardboard covered in a cloth that's fraying down to its last few granular threads.  There's a thick row of nature journals that are at or near their centennial.  And there are nigh-unreadable messes of careful caveats and impenetrable insights.  Taoism: the Enduring Tradition is one of these last.

I should say that Kirkland's work is extremely rigorous.  He took care to lay down definitions, sort out categories, and heap scorn on mistaken assumptions.  He works methodically to sort out the tangle of complicated ideas of uncertain origin.  For example, he picks apart the false dichotomy of a "religious Taoism" and "philosophical Taoism" that has comforted so many "spiritual" people with the idea that this tradition comes in a flavor untainted by superstition.  And he destroys with calm devastation the long-standing notions about the Taoist sages we accept as canonical - it turns out that such selection is just as baseless as what took place with the Bible's many rejected texts.  Lazy scholars have long prowled the field of the Way, it seems.

But after admitting the serious worth of Kirkland's book, its valuable insights, and its extraordinary effort at precision, I can only beg: someone, please write an accessible book using this same rigorous information!  I'm sure I was only able to get some fraction of what is in Kirkland's, and so until someone makes this material approachable, I will remain like a toothless man with a walnut tree: frustrated and hungry.

Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder

My wife is a very smart woman, so it's not too surprising that she was able to sum up Sophie's World in one short sentence: "There's not enough plot."

Sophie's World is a very clever book, and Jostein Gaardner is a very clever man.  If nothing else, he deserves praise for having written a light history of philosophy that's easy to read.  It takes the form of a sort of mystery, as a young girl begins getting letters from a mysterious and unknown philosopher.  This stranger teaches her all about the history of philosophy, from beginning right up until the modern day (even some of Rawls!)  But while he teaches her, a metatextual game plays out and the reader is led to wonder at the philosopher's identity and the purpose of this unrequested series of lessons.

There are two main observations I have about the book:

  • The clever history of philosophy that is unfolded for the reader is accurate and well-written.  It fairly describes and assesses the great people of Western philosophy.
  • The plot of the fictional frame for that history is clumsy and poorly-written.  It starts off decently enough, if a bit thin, but by the end of the book it's intrusive and a bit disturbing.

I suppose there might be a need for a book that tries to use a clever story to shoehorn philosophy into the reader.  But I suspect that this need could be better met than with Sophie's World.  It'll to have to do, for now.  Pick it up if you're new to philosophy and looking for a way to broach the subject - don't bother, otherwise.

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis

In 1883, Henry James wrote to a bereaved friend a beautiful letter offering sympathy and sorrow.  Perhaps most interestingly, included in his advice was the idea that she shouldn't "melt into the universe" and generalize her grief.  James advised her not to put herself wholly in context with the sum of all mankind's losses. He told her that she must "remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another's, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own."

When I read James' letter, C.S. Lewis' beautiful A Grief Observed leapt into mind. Compiled from the diaries he filled in the days after his beloved wife's death, they are a shockingly direct expression of grief.  Lewis tackles that terrible algebra without flinching.  He turns to all of the strange manifestations of mourning in their turn: the odd self-centeredness of the process, the weird but terrible fears, and the agony.

As the foreword by Madeleine L'Engle notes, C.S. Lewis' relationship with his wife was an unusual one.  They'd known each other for many years before they became involved, and each had a deep and abiding respect for the other well before it developed into love.  Moreover, they married with the specter of death already beginning to loom over her in the shape of terminal illness. Yet that doesn't seem to have dulled the loss - perhaps long acquaintance and foreknowledge only sharpened the pain.

Above all, Lewis' book is honest.  He does not appeared to have polished it up or cleaned out any of the things that might reflect badly on him: from first to last, this brief, grim, beautiful book stares you right in the eye.

Read this book.  It will take little time, and you will be the richer for it.

Five Moral Pieces, Umberto Eco

In this slim collection of essays, Eco writes on five moral topics.  They range from instant classics to merely superb, although it must be admitted that at least one is not very accessible.

"Ur-Fascism" is probably the essay that will be most remembered.  Indeed, I have already often heard it quoted in the decade since this book's publication.  Eco grew up an enthusiastic fascist boy in WWII Italy, mouthing the required pablum and hating the required people.  He gives an account of his delight at the revelation of the wider world beyond the fascist construction - an account that ably answers the disbelief of latter-day readers, who might wonder how anyone could have swallowed the obvious idiocy of fascism.  But even more valuable, Eco gives a studied and intelligent list of the qualities of fascism, clarifying a variable concept that would otherwise be consigned to fuzzy vagueness in our mind (those of us who aren't in political science, anyway).  The essay has the authoritative sound of the final word on a subject, the sort of thing to which everyone must now refer when they speak of fascism.

Almost as interesting are his "Reflections on War," a discussion of how we cannot flinch from a moral certainty that war is wrong, even in the face of a well-executed conflict with a just objective.  Particularly cutting to myself and my wishy-washy thoughts on Obama's strike into Libya, it forced me to reconsider my position on the matter and try to find an ethically consistent stance.  With similar impact but opposite effect, "When the Other Appears on the Scene," a discussion of the source of ethics with a Catholic cardinal, provided a well-articulated set of reasons to support some of my beliefs about being good without God.

Less effective are the essay on the media, "On the Press," and a discussion of immigration in Europe, "Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable."  It's tempting to suggest that the problem is just the insular nature of the discussion in these essays, as their focus is on Italian journalism and the xenophobia of wealthy Europe.  Still, even these lesser works are still remarkable, and it's only the company they keep that makes them look bad.

I strongly recommend that you find a copy of this book, or at least find a copy of "Ur-Fascism" on the net somewhere.

1491, Charles C. Mann

I am always suspicious of a convenient argument that threatens to relieve me of some of my lapsed-Catholic guilt at the misdeeds of my ancestors, race, class, country, etc.  1491 is a good example, since it presents a much-altered vision of America prior to European colonialism.

In Mann's view and in the view of those anthropologists and archaeologists for whom he speaks, the New World was not the pristine wilderness we have always been told.  Instead, the Native Americans had extensively changed the landscape, reworking it with labor, water, and fire to craft it into a world that would better suit their needs.  Further, almost all the peoples of the continent were destroyed not by the rampaging colonists - who did severe damage and often finished the job - but rather by diseases that wiped out an order of magnitude more people than previously thought.  In this vision of America, millions of people had swept across the continent over centuries in order to reshape it from its natural state, but were wiped out by diseases that left them at their nadir when colonists actually encountered them.

The Native American spokespeople and many mainstream scientists have been either suspicious or outright hostile to this proposition for much the same reason as myself: the idea has long been that America was a relatively virgin continent where a small population of natives lived in harmony with nature before being crushed by colonial encroachment.  A revision of this idea, where one terraforming people were wiped out accidentally by disease before being replaced by another, lessens the responsibility of the terrible actions of colonial invaders.  We should be rightly uncertain about theories that let us off the hook.

I'm certainly not competent to judge the quality of the archaeology discussed in the book, or assess its conclusions in context with all the evidence.  In this, as in any case of scientific dissent, we must just allow for a new element of uncertainty to arrive in our consideration of the narrative, with an addition of "although some people have suggested" tacked onto our story of the past.  At the least, Mann's well-written and well-considered book deserves that honor.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua

Amy Chua has a philosophy of parenting.  She calls it "Chinese parenting," though admit it's more "immigrant parenting" than anything else.  It is a very simple philosophy of parenting: she forces her children to learn and improve themselves all day, every day.  They don't goof off, don't explore themselves, and don't misbehave. Standards are kept spectacularly high: the children must not just do well, they must be exemplary.  When they lead their class or deliver a flawless performance, they are praised.  Anything less is failure, and the children are told so.

It's straightforward.

I guess I'm pretty behind the curve on this one.  It caused a huge stir six months ago in the media.  The hubbub came from the same tension that drives the book: "Chinese parenting" seems incredibly cruel and ultimately self-defeating, yet it also seems to work extremely well.  It is an undeniable fact that Ivy League universities have quotas on the maximum number of Asian students they will accept.  How do we deal with a method of child-raising that seems so terrible but gets such amazing results?  And are the results actually so good?

Let's start with the book: it's nothing over which to crow.  The first third of the book is really the whole, with the remaining bulk of the text padded with directionless anecdotes.  These latter chapters, limp and mealy, are slung over a basic frame that traces the actual application of Chua's parenting method on her daughters and the varied triumphs and agonies that followed.  Chua writes with a learned woman's concentration but with the mechanical plunking of an amateur: it is functional prose, but it's not pretty.  This last section of the book is also cramped by the fact that a reader's interest in the musical performances of the author's daughters will be limited.

These problems are all surmountable, though, and Chua's thesis is interesting enough to make this brief text worth reading in whole.  Children of a certain kind of hardship excel, and their own children - pressured to succeed - also excel.  We all can see this, personally and statistically.  We even see it generationally: look at the generation of the Great Depression and then their children, the generation of World War 2.  So many of the titans of yesterday and today seem to have achieved not just in spite of the weights placed upon them, but because of those weights.

I suppose I'm striking the same tone as every other reviewer during the firestorm of discussion that accompanied publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: "Golly this seems kind of mean, but it sure does seem to work," with a gutless little caveat tacked on at the end: "Or does it?"  But this is the sort of book that starts a debate, rather than ending it.  And as far as I know, the text to conclude this discussion has not yet been written.

My advice is that you should simply read the excerpted heart of Chua's book, rather than bothering with the unfocused whole.  The Wall Street Journal has a good selection.  Read it, and get in on the conversation.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

When reading The Hunger Games, I am most struck by what seems to be the obvious process by which the book was created.  This book, the story of a girl's trials through a brutal game of combat in a horrible future world, was manufactured and assembled as perfectly as any product.

Laura Miller has shown in her typical interesting fashion how young adult fiction is more heavily top-down than any other sector of publishing, with a handful of deeply influential people choosing the books that get chosen and discussed, and how that focused into a perfect storm of promotion for Collins' dystopian trilogy.  Collins, who already had proven ability with her hit series The Underland Chronicles and who had long experience writing television for Nickelodeon, was a great bet for publishers.  Every chapter of The Hunger Games is a television-esque cliffhanger, and some of the essential elements of recent blockbuster fiction are present, such as the love triangle between the earnest guy and the brooding guy (e.g. Jacob and Edward)

Even better, Collins has played to one of the strengths of the genre with barely-disguised classical references.  You don't need to be subtle with kids, so you can call your dictator "Coriolanus Snow" and include a clever little story about a man named Titus and the shocking violence of cannibalism.

And, being relatively below the radar of ideological suspicion, you can use some hoary old tropes from the most fiery sector of sermons, the socialist disgust with inequality, unfairness, and the self-indulgence of the masses.  But before I go into that, let's tackle the book itself.

These are, above all, well-crafted books.  Sleek and clever, they trickle out just enough information to the reader to make the story intelligible without detracting from the central drama.  It's only after a lengthy opening few scenes of hard times that we're given any explanation of the dystopic world of Panem, and that amounts to only a single paragraph of history of the world and background for the brutal Hunger Games.  It might have been tempting for Collins to have listed all the Districts, or released some fragment of information about the first uprising against the Capitol, or even just have told the reader a few slivers of solid geography. But Collins avoids this while still telling us sufficient background so that we don't feel lost.  We're kept on track, locked on to Katniss' story.

Early in this book, there's a wonderful example of Collins' skill as a writer.  Katniss has left her hellish coal-dusky home, and gone into the woods with her bow to meet a friend:
In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings on a smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods. “Hey, Catnip,” says Gale. My real name is Katniss, but when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I’d said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.
Here, in a slim paragraph, we can see the gears mesh as Collins' assembles her character and story.  It's brisk yet sentimental, a style maintained through the book and reflective of Katniss herself.  She climbs out of the bad place, to a rock ledge overlooking a valley - and who doesn't have a mental image of a wondrous example of that? - and two very brief anecdotes drive home Katniss' enchanting vulnerability (which allows us to relate to her) and her fierceness (which allows us to be proud of her).

This is a very well-written book, and that's not something I often say about young adult literature.

Much ado has been made of the fact that the Hunger Games seem to be pulled straight from the Japanese Battle Royale - the group of kids forced to fight until only one remains, the lovers who have to find a way to both win, the Careers who indulge in the game for fun, etc.  And I have already said that I think that the love triangle is handled almost an identical way to Twilight's love triangle.  But even more interesting are the similarity of rhetoric I hear in the book with old socialist texts such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and William Morris' News from Nowhere.

The cry about how the elites divide the poor to keep them in check:
On other days, deep in the woods, I’ve listened to him rant about how the tesserae are just another tool to cause misery in our district. A way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on supper and thereby ensure we will never trust one another. “It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves,” he might say if there were no ears to hear but mine.
The disgust with how the system is rigged to both appear "fair" yet systematically oppress the poor:
The reaping system is unfair, with the poor getting the worst of it. You become eligible for the reaping the day you turn twelve. That year, your name is entered once. At thirteen, twice. And so on and so on until you reach the age of eighteen, the final year of eligibility, when your name goes into the pool seven times. That’s true for every citizen in all twelve districts in the entire country of Panem. But here’s the catch. Say you are poor and starving as we were. You can opt to add your name more times in exchange for tesserae. Each tessera is worth a meager year’s supply of grain and oil for one person. You may do this for each of your family members as well. So, at the age of twelve, I had my name entered four times.
The focus on social class and its secondary but no less effective stratification:
“At least, you two have decent manners,” says Effie as we’re finishing the main course. “The pair last year ate everything with their hands like a couple of savages. It completely upset my digestion.” The pair last year were two kids from the Seam who’d never, not one day of their lives, had enough to eat. And when they did have food, table manners were surely the last thing on their minds. Peeta’s a baker’s son. My mother taught Prim and I to eat properly, so yes, I can handle a fork and knife. But I hate Effie Trinket’s comment so much I make a point of eating the rest of my meal with my fingers.
The outrage at the indolence of the rich:
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?
And of course the subtle distinction between the lower-middle-class and the true proletariat:
“He let you go because he didn’t want to owe you anything?” asks Peeta in disbelief. “Yes. I don’t expect you to understand it. You’ve always had enough. But if you’d lived in the Seam, I wouldn’t have to explain,” I say.
I should be clear here and say that I do not find such sentiments objectionable: there's nothing wrong with finding powerful rhetoric in socialist texts, or discovering those same rhythms independently.  This is not meant as a criticism.  But it does seem interesting that The Hunger Game's status as young adult fiction has enabled it to fly below the radar and indulge in a lengthy and vocal attack on conspicuous consumption, social stratification, and inequality in an era when so many Red-hunters are eager to sniff out any whiff of socialism.  As it turns out, the Republicans should never have feared Obama's Evil Communism, but rather should have been on the lookout for plucky Katniss all along.

Need I even say?  Read it.

20 March 2012


10 IF Location$ = "Debate" THEN GOTO 30
20 IF Location$ = "Poor" THEN GOTO 60 ELSE GOTO 70
30 RUN SmugCondescension
40 LET a$ = (a$+1)
50 IF a$ = 1000 THEN GOTO 70 ELSE GOTO 30
60 IF $ethnic = "1" THEN RUN $EthnicJoke
70 PRINT "He he he."

18 March 2012

Alan Caruba is a singularity of terribleness

Alan Caruba, patron saint of terrible columnists (evidence here and here), has written this week about President Obama's recent Executive Order on "National Defense Resources Preparedness."  This column is a microcosm of all that is wrong with Alan Caruba's spasms of pseudo-journalism.
The President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama, has generated so much fear that the most common theme of posted comments and private communications is that he will refuse to relinquish power if defeated in November or that, under some pretext, he will declare a state of martial law.
An Executive Order posted on the White House website on Friday, March 16, 2012, has generated a wave of fear. It is officially about “National Defense Resources Preparedness” and its stated policy addresses “national defense resource policies and programs under the Defense Production Act of 1950.”
The new EO evokes fear because it is occurring in peacetime and, more specifically, when the United States remains the strongest military power on Earth. There is no indication that an attack by any other nation is anticipated, so the implementation of the EO raises concerns that its purpose is not what it says.
In effect, the EO allows the federal government, directed by the President, to commandeer and control all aspects of the economy and the lives of all Americans. It centralizes control to an astonishing and frightening degree.
Let's get one thing straight, first of all. I can't believe I even have to say this, but this executive order is not occurring in peacetime. We are at war in Afghanistan against the insurgents, for the moment at least, and only just drawing a second war in Iraq to a close. In March alone, twenty-five soldiers have died in Afganistan, and seven of them were Americans. Alan Caruba is dumb. But okay, what terrible things does Obama's executive order do?
As just one example, it parcels out control to “ the Secretary of Agriculture with respect to food resources, food resource facilities, livestock resources, veterinary resources, plant health resources, and the domestic distribution of farm equipment and commercial fertilizer” and thereafter to:
The Secretary of Energy with respect to all forms of energy;
The Secretary of Health and Human Services with respect to health resources;
The Secretary of Transportation with respect to all forms of civil transportation;
The Secretary of Defense with respect to water resources; and
The Secretary of Commerce with respect to all other materials, services, and facilities, including construction materials.
Well, it's true that he did copy-and-paste some elements of the executive order that sound vaguely threatening.  But it is not true that these Cabinet members get "control." The first half of that section of the executive order - the half Caruba "forgot" to include - explicitly states that this is restricted to governmental supply orders and non-employment contracts. Quite reasonably, this is just the President delegating his authority as executive to place government orders for supplies to his cabinet members. This is so that in time of crisis, the Secretary of Transportation can specially order some boxcars for the railroad or whatever. And as the next section further specifies, the Cabinet members can only do this under written authorization of Defense, Homeland Security, or Energy.  It will be a vicious authoritarian coup, but at least it will be well-documented and planned for.

But hey, I guess I shouldn't bust Caruba too much for lazily copying and pasting stuff from this executive order. After all, this one is just an update of the 1996 Executive Order 12919, and in fact that whole scary section of Obama's that so terrifies Caruba was itself copied and pasted from President Clinton's. And even worse, Clinton seems to have just clarified what was done in 1988 by President Reagan's Executive Order 12656!

Obama! How villainous of you to travel back in time and force Ronald Reagan to delegate the authority granted by the Defense Production Act of 1950 to the Cabinet! What did poor Ronald Reagan ever do to you?

You can read the rest of the column for yourself (until Caruba deletes in in shame), but it's mostly baseless fearmongering about how Obama will enact a coup and arrest all of Congress, and the media will help him because they're in cahoots.  But that's all beside the point.  The real point is this: Alan Caruba is terrible.

Ancestry Part 2: a Hiracano and a Murder

Lizzie's family is a cascading succession of unusual and famous names from England and New England, making it unusually easy to track down her forebears.  In fact, thanks to her famous ancestor General John Bayley, there are entire books written about portions of her lineage.  That's how I know that she is descended from one of the most colorful early settlers of New England: John Bailey of Salisbury.

John Bailey was born in Chippenham in the county of Wiltshire in England sometime in 1590.  He married (to Eleanor Knight nee Emery) and had four children, and dwelt in the town of Salisbury, working as a weaver.  But he was not happy with his lot in Salisbury.  Perhaps he was unhappy with the opportunities there, or perhaps he had gotten into some mischief, or perhaps he just had the urge to wander.  Whatever the reason, he took ship for the New World when he was 44 years old, in 1635.  Bailey left behind his wife and some of his children, taking along his eldest son John Jr.

Immigration to America has never been a small thing, but in 1635 it was downright courageous.  The first successful colony, that of Jamestown in Virginia, had been settled in only 1607.  When Bailey took ship, he was traveling to an almost unknown world.  All that was certain about the Americas was that they were dangerous, cold, hostile, and vast.  This was rightly called a Great Migration.

Things got crazy right from the start for the Baileys.

The father and son were on the Angel Gabriel, a stout galleon that had once been used in Sir Walter Raleigh's raids on the Spanish.  It sailed with four other ships from Milford Haven on June 22nd.  One of the reasons we know some details of the voyage is that the James, another member of the convoy, carried Dr. Richard Mather, ancestor of famous colonials Increase Mather and Cotton Mather.  The good doctor kept a detailed diary.

This diary is exceedingly boring, as most are.  There is a great deal of discussion about the direction of the wind, and the various vomiting passengers, and the delicious dolphin they caught in their fourth week.  But near the conclusion of the voyage, the James and the Angel Gabriel, now separated thanks to James' superior speed, had the misfortune to be at sea during an event called the "Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635."

Says Dr. Mather:
And tho: we had two stormes by ye way, ye one upon Munday ye 3d of August, ye other on Saturday ye 15th of ye same, yet or gracious God (blessed and forever blessed bee his name) did save us all alive in ym both, & speedily assuaged ym againe. Indeed ye latter of ym was very terrible and grievous, insomuch yt wn wee came to land wee found many mighty trees rent in pieces in ye midst of ye bole, and others turned up by ye rootes by ye fiercenesse thereof: and a barke going from ye bay to Marvil head, with planters & seamen therein to y’ number of about 23, was caste away in ye storme, and all ye people therein perished, except one man & his wife, that were spared to report ye newes. And ye Angel Gabriel beeing yn at ancre at Pemmaquid, was burst in pieces and cast away in ye storme, & most of y’ cattell and other goodes, with one seaman & 3 or 4 passengers did also perish therein, besides two of ye passengers yt dyed by ye way, ye rest having yr lives given ym for a prey. But ye James & wee yt were therein, with or cattell & goods, were all preserved alive.  The Lords name be blessed forever.

Unsurprisingly, in Increase Mather's 1670 book The Life and Death of Richard Mather, he attributes this turn of events to divine providence.  He says that the "fearful Storm (which the Americans are wont to call an  Hiracano)" and which posed "no small danger" to the James and Dr. Mather, was saved thanks to "the Lord strangely turn[ing] the Wind in an instant", though "the very same strange and sudden turn of Wind which saved the Vessel wherein Mr. Mather was, ruined the other which came from England at the same time."

According to J. Henry Cartland's 1899 Ten Years at Pemaquid, the Angel Gabriel, bearing John Bailey and his son John Jr., was the first shipwreck experienced by colonists going from the Old World to the New.

It was a rough start to a new life in the colonies.  There is a plaque at Pemaquid Point, Maine, where the wreck occurred as the ship was driven onto the rocks in the outer harbor.

Cast ashore and ruined, John Bailey and his son made their way inland from Maine to Massachusetts, joining the town of Newbury.  The town was only two months old - a small cluster of villages - but it nonetheless must have been too populous for Bailey, because only two years later he made his way further west, into the unsettled land, to strike out on his own in 1637.

Bailey claimed some land at the point where the Powow River drains into the Merrimack River.  His farm, which still has a crumbling old stone-lined pit that was once a cellar, is now mostly part of Alliance Park, the site where the U.S.S. Alliance was built in 1777.

Today, a "Bailey Pond" and "Bailey's Hill" commemorate John Bailey's settlement in this spot, as well as a plaque honoring the first settlers of what would later become Amesbury, Massachusetts.

Things were looking up.  Bailey, his son, and a hired man named William Schooler had started fishing the river and cultivating a farm.  The other locals who had begun settling the area had agreed to assign exclusive fishing rights to the entire Powow to Bailey, on condition that he deliver a portion of his catch for general consumption.

William Schooler, Bailey's employee, was a bit of a character.  A London vintner and notorious adulterer, he had fled to enlist as a mercenary in Holland after wounding a man in a duel, and from there had deserted and gone to the New World.  He was a man of low reputation, and not the sort of person with whom you wanted to associate yourself.

It was perhaps Bailey's own fault, then, that he too was arrested for the murder of young Mary Sholy on June 6th.

As recounted in Murder and Mayhem in Essex Country by Robert Wilhelm, Mary Sholy was a poor young maid working in the town Pascataquack (now Portsmouth).  She had been in Newbury for an unknown purpose in 1636, and had sought out a guide to escort her back home.  William Schooler, then unemployed, had seized on the opportunity to make some money, and agreed to escort her to Pascataquack for fifteen shillings.  He didn't actually know the route very well, since he had never been there, but money was money.

At the time, the rough and dangerous road from Newbury to Pascataquack was more than thirty miles, a fair journey on foot for two people through wild land.  Yet Schooler was back in Newbury within two days of departure - far too short a time for the full return journey - with blood on his hat and a scratch across his nose.  He explained that he had killed a pigeon and run through some brambles on the journey, but had escorted Mary to within a few miles of her destination.  Though suspicious, the residents of Newbury permitted him to leave.  He took up residence and employment with John Bailey, out of town and away from accusing eyes.  No word arrived of Mary.

Six months later, her body was found in the Winnacunnet Woods by an Agawam Indian, naked and decomposing.  Tensions among the natives and colonials were high - enlistments for militia had started to enable a war on the Pequod tribe - so the Agawam was careful to bring colonial authorities to the murder scene.  Shortly thereafter, they marched to the Bailey farm at Amesbury, and arrested both men there under suspicion of murder.  The first murder in America had occurred only seven years earlier, with Mayflower Compact signatory John Billington's killing of John Newcomen and subsequent hanging, but criminal processes were well-established thanks to the experience of such men as Governor John Winthrop.

Upon reviewing the evidence, John Bailey was released with apology, while William Schooler was hanged, despite the relatively circumstantial evidence.  He was a man of poor character, suspected of being an atheist, and so the scanty evidence was enough to see him executed two months after arrest.

Bailey went home, but didn't stay out of trouble - despite his close shave with one of the first American murders.  Only two years later, he was heavily fined for illegally and unfairly buying up Indian lands.  The fine was five pounds, a large sum at the time, but was remitted on condition he return the lands to their rightful owners.

Perhaps rightfully, these incidents and Bailey's testy relationship with other residents had given him a bad reputation.  He'd had his fishing rights stripped from him for failing to turn over fish to the town (although they were reinstated that same year) and he was suspected of being an adulterer because his wife was still in England.  This was an unfair accusation - he had often requested that she join him in America, but thanks to his too-lurid description of the shipwreck of the Angel Gabriel she had never found the courage to make the journey (though one daughter found her way over).  Still, the townspeople seem to have disliked him, because in 1651 he was again arrested, this time for living apart from his wife.

The court in Ipswich ordered John Bailey to reunite with his wife, either in England or in America.  Things could no longer remain as they were: he could no longer be permitted to damage the morals of the community.  And because his wife was clearly not going to make the trip, this verdict amounted to a sentence of exile.  But later that year and before the verdict could be enforced, John Bailey died.  He left behind his son and a daughter, Joanna, as well as a big imprint on the history of Massachusetts and America.  His family would intermarry repeatedly with his wife's family, the Emerys, and populate much of New England.

Henry Rowland Crapo describes John Bailey in his 1912 Certain Comeovers as a "rather pathetic old fellow with which the world seemed on the whole to go somewhat awry."  This is a harsh judgment, but a just one.  From the first to the last, John Bailey's American experience was a rough one, often through no fault of his own.  We can only be glad that the Baileys' beginning was also their nadir: things just got better.